The Future of Higher Education in California – Mind the Gap

California State Senate Pro Tem Kevin DeLeon, University of California President Janet Napolitano and Mark Baldassare President and CEO Public Policy institute of California (PPIC) at the Opening of the PPIC Higher Education Center on April 12, 2016 (Photo by Josh Morgan)

California’s public higher education system has long been one of the leaders, if not the leader, in access and excellence for decades.  This leap beyond really came about during a period of intense focus on building infrastructure in the 1950’s and 60’s.  There were freeways built to move people, aqueducts to move water and a system of higher education to move minds.

From the flagship University of California (Berkeley) the system grew to include 10 UCs, 23 state universities and 113 community colleges.  The core of this system was access to higher education and the upward mobility promised by education that was the calling card for California.

The three areas of focus below were laid out by Hans Johnson during the introduction of the Public Policy Institute of California’s Higher Education Center and there was a fourth, excellence, added by University of California president Janet Napolitano in a forum that followed.  These areas of focus touch on most of the hot buttons surrounding public higher education in California right now, and in many cases as goes California often goes the country.  Due to our size, population and action, what happens in California impacts how other states react to challenges and as California State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin DeLeon added, “We are the leaders.  Washington DC looks to California.”



According to the master plan synopsis on the UC site, ”all California residents in the top one-eighth or top one-third of the statewide high school graduating class who apply on time be offered a place somewhere in the UC or CSU system, respectively, though not necessarily at the campus or in the major of first choice.  The “promise,” is still there but the follow-through isn’t.  According to the PPIC over the past three years more than 30,000 qualified California students who had applied to other schools were redirected to UC Merced, where fewer than 600 of those students registered.



There were significant state funding cuts for both UC and CSU during the recession and fees and tuition were increased significantly as a result.  There has also been an increase in available financial aid, but there is still a large majority of Californians that think that affordability in higher education is a big problem (PPIC Statewide Survey 2014). This perception gap makes it more difficult for legislators to support increasing higher education funding.


Getting to college is one challenge, getting through is another.  Only 61% of UC students graduate in four years and only 16% of CSU students within four, and slightly more than half in six years (which actually tracks pretty closely with national averages).  This may be an indicator that the notion of going away to college for years and coming back with a degree is done, or an indicator that there needs to be new capacity created for students to move through the system more quickly and create space for those needed to fill the gap of approximately 1.1 million bachelor degree educated students that California needs to fill.

Looking at the above, they are a bit like puppies and balloons. Who doesn’t like these ideas?  The issue is priority and with priority comes public support and funding.  Edelman recently released a study on “University Reputations and the Public,” which called out specific areas where public opinion needs to be focused to support the above and consequently where some of the future communications and public affairs challenges may lie.

  • Our survey found that only four in 10 public citizens say the university’s traditional role is vital to society (vs six in 10 that say universities need to evolve.). This is supported by data from an article (Shut up About Harvard) on that says, “Nearly half of all college students attend community colleges; among those at four-year schools, nearly a quarter attend part time and about the same share are 25 or older. In total, less than a third of U.S. undergraduates are “traditional” students in the sense that they are full-time, degree-seeking students at primarily residential four-year colleges.” The point being that the behavior of college students has evolved but the notion or understanding of what college is, perhaps has not.


  • When our survey asked if it is more important for universities to focus on providing a well-rounded education and student experience or it is more important that universities focus on providing students with tools and resources they need to succeed in a specific career, we found that academics worry about quality, while the public worries about jobs. This is actually being well addressed through the expansion of opportunities for specific career related options including baccalaureate or bachelor’s degrees being offered through community colleges in areas such as manufacturing, dental hygiene and respiratory care.  The continued growth of opportunities for advancement beyond traditional higher education may create friction over resources between traditional four year universities and colleges and other providers of advanced education.

There is a serious communication gap between what is happening and higher ed and what the popular narrative is.